Primus - Sailing the Seas of Cheese
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
God help you if you have outgrown cartoons, if you can no longer find value in them, if you can no longer see yourself in them. Cartoons are our culture’s most imaginative expression of human nature, and despite the crazy voices, goofball facial expressions and over-the-top plot lines, they are nothing but vivid representations of very real fears, dreams and shared experiences. They are silly, child-like and filled with scenery and characters more colourful than those we normally encounter. Perhaps it’s because of those qualities -- the lack of pretension, the hope, the imagination -- that many refuse to give in to cartoons. Cartoons make them feel cynical and old.
Those people can have their choice of animated sitcoms -- some great (Mission Hill), some absolutely shitty (Undergrads) -- but I’m talking about cartoons: Warner Brothers cartoons, Disney classics, Ren and Stimpy, Spongebob Squarepants, the fucking Transformers; living, animated, alien worlds governed by their own laws and their own sciences. These cartoons are made by and for people who crave an imaginative, wholly original distraction from a world they’ve grown too used to.
So God help you if you have outgrown Primus, the kings of imaginative distraction, perhaps the greatest cartoon-inspired rock band of all time. Primus filled their songs with everything that makes cartoons great -- lively characters with strange voices and bizarre histories, mundane settings that allow for off-the-wall stories -- while pounding out a destructive, rhythm-centric brand of noodle-metal which, because of its complexity and innovation, has never been emulated; just revered, respected and laughed along with.
With Sailing the Seas of Cheese, however, the zaniness is significantly less than it was on Primus’s studio debut, Frizzle Fry, resulting in an even more endearing, unique listening experience unlike anything before or since. Sailing is a surprisingly dark album whose finest songs are those that delve into paranoia, drug abuse, the roots of conformity and humiliating poverty. The jammy prog and late-80s funk-rock that tarnished Frizzle Fry is replaced with stripped down, Bay area metal riffs (think old Faith No More and respectable Metallica) that provide a simple, aggressive outline for the band to color, shade and give life to.
Les Claypool is the head animator and the voice for all of Primus’s left field creations, and while he himself could be considered a caricature of Geddy Lee -- a voice that is high, incessantly nasal and impossible to ignore and a mastery of the bass that is unparalleled -- it’s frighteningly clear that Claypool is possessed of a unique vision of what rocks. His vocals cleverly and authentically emulate the subject of each song: if he sounds like a reminiscing redneck or a goose-stepping sergeant, mission accomplished. His bass lines -- highly technical, innovative combinations of slapping, strumming and tapping that pushed the boundaries of what the instrument’s role is -- could be the dialogue of some thin-necked, bird-like alien found on the sketch pad of some scrawny stoner.
That alien’s company was just as indecipherable. Larry LaLonde attacked prog and jazz with well-honed 80s thrash, creating guitar lines that were at once spazzy and spacious, allowing for Claypool’s bass to drive each song forward. Most songs find the bass pecking and jerking while the guitar -- a near-human thing with huge, frizzy hair, wide, unblinking eyes and freakishly stiff posture -- screeches at it from across the street. Tim Alexander’s drums are the sane member of the trio. Tasteful and sparse, but capable of fills, grooves and double-kick flourishes that can crack walls, Alexander’s drum lines are the hairless, effeminate, muscle-bound scientist who finds himself having to keep track of the out-of-control bass lines and the often screaming guitar.
It’s a good cast of characters -- colourful, nary a cliché to be found -- and the premise is interesting: a series of unrelated stories about fishermen, race car drivers, tomcats and annoyed Brits all set to a soundtrack of metal-influenced prog-funk with heavy doses of jazz that never seems to take itself seriously. So why don’t more people sit back and bear witness to Sailing the Seas of Cheese? Because listening to Sailing the Seas of Cheese is not unlike settling in for a night of cartoons: it’s bizarre and unselfconscious; it’s something you do in your underwear with bong in hand; it’s something you’re likely to do without a member of the opposite sex anywhere near you. It’s nerd-thrash. It’s South Park. It’s perfect. Literally. Tension breakers aside (the plunk of “Sathington Waltz”, the old man in the shower gag “Grandad’s Little Ditty”), there is not one track on Sailing that isn’t thrilling, each one a small dose of invigorating madness.
The character songs are some of the most fun; energetic, colloquialism-heavy portraits of imagined protagonists who are just insane enough to be envied, feared and pitied. You can see “Sgt. Baker” marching ruthlessly in time with the jerky grooves of the song that bears his name, each step a slapped and sliding bass chord. “Jerry Was a Race Car Driver” is a quaint, noodly, tap-and-squeal tale of small town heroes until it explodes into an unbelievably heavy sludge-groove breakdown. The tale of “Tommy the Cat” is told by Tom Waits, whose rapid, raspy delivery brings even more life and personality to a song already brimming with both. The band is at full strength on “Tommy the Cat” -- a chugging, yet spacious rhythmic assault -- as Claypool, LaLonde and Alexander all turn in what are arguably their best performances as members of Primus.
The album’s best songs, however, are those that deal with subjects and not just characters. Getting away from insane protagonists seemed to focus Primus’s riff writing, resulting in intense, dynamic attacks on not just their instruments, but on their subject matter as well. “Here Come the Bastards”, “American Life” and “Eleven” are each a masterpiece driven by ideas as much as they are by monstrous bass lines. “Bastards” maintains tension throughout its verses until igniting in the chorus with a single guitar chord. “American Life” depicts the day-to-day lives of the destitute with surprising empathy, using a tempo change near the song’s end to instil a fleeting sense of hope. “Eleven” just kicks ass, and despite the relative repetitiveness of its trudging wail, when each instrument gets reverse panned after the guitar solo -- the guitar goes from right, the bass and drums go left -- the anvil falls out of the sky, the coyote falls off the cliff, the fuse on the dynamite reaches its end. Ka-Boom!
By: Clay Jarvis
Published on: 2003-09-01